The Chauchat (pronounced 'show-shah') was a light machine gun used mainly by the French Army but also by seven other nations, including the USA, during and after World War I. Its formal designation in the French Army was Fusil-Mitrailleur Mle 1915 CSRG. It was also known as the FM Chauchat, CSRG or Gladiator. Over 260,000 were produced, making it the most widely-manufactured automatic weapon of World War I (1914–18). A variant to accommodate the US .30-06 cartridge is known as the CSRG M1918. It was specifically designed for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), as a different weapon. However the CSRG M1918 ( in US .30-06 ) completely failed to provide reliable service. Conversely, the CSRG M1915 (in French 8mm Lebel) was widely used in American service during WW-1 ( in 1917 and 1918 ). It was described in official AEF instruction manuals as the " Automatic Rifle Model 1915 (Chauchat)" .
The "Chauchat" or CSRG M1915 was one of the first light machine guns designed to be carried and fired by a single operator and an assistant, without a heavy tripod or a team of machine gunners. It set a precedent for several subsequent 20th century firearm projects, being a portable automatic weapon built inexpensively and in very large numbers. It combined a pistol grip, an in-line stock, a large-capacity detachable magazine, and selective-fire capability in a compact package of manageable weight (20 pounds) for a single soldier. It could be fired from the hip and also while walking.
In the muddy trenches of northern France several operational problems came to light. Most of these were a side effect of the economical construction and in particular of the open-sided, semi-circular magazines. Those allowed for the ingress of dirt and were the cause of 2/3 of all stoppages. Immediately after the war, the French replaced the Chauchat with the Mle 1924 and later with the Mle 1924/29 light machine gun. The American Expeditionary Forces in France (the AEF) eventually replaced it with the superior Browning Automatic Rifle, or BAR, which appeared on the front lines of northern France in September 1918, barely two months before the Armistice of November 11.
Over time the Chauchat's poor reputation and short service life have led many modern experts to describe it as perhaps the "worst machine gun" ever fielded in the history of warfare. Period reports, soldiers' memoirs, as well as US Divisional Histories (1917–1918) tend to be more moderate in tone. The reason for the blanket condemnation of all Chauchat machine-rifles, including the CSRG M1915 and the CSRG M1918, is due in very large part to the disastrous service record of the CSRG M1918 (in .30-06) and to the ignorance of the useful service provided by the CSRG M1915 (in 8mm Lebel) during WW1.
The Chauchat light machine gun, or machine rifle, functioned on the long barrel recoil principle with a gas assist. The long barrel recoil principle had also been used by the Hungarian Rudolf Frommer for his "Frommer Stop" pistol (1910) and some experimental rifles (1905). The chronology of the patents makes it clear that Rudolf Frommer and Louis Chauchat had simply borrowed the mechanical principles of an already existing long barrel recoil, semi-automatic rifle filed by John Browning in his milestone U.S. Patent 659,786 of October 16, 1900. This precursor was the Remington Model 8 semi-automatic rifle which was successfully marketed (80,000) between 1906 and 1936.
Browning's long barrel recoil principle was also applied in 1907 to autoloading shotguns: the classic "Browning Auto-5" and the "Remington Model 11". Following behind these commercial developments, Lt. Colonel Louis Chauchat and armorer Charles Sutter, at Atelier de Construction de Puteaux (APX) arsenal since 1903, proposed a portable light machine gun based on the working principles applied in Browning's Remington Model 8 rifle. In 1908 it was dubbed Fusil-Mitrailleur C.S. ("C.S. Machine Rifle") and it used the 8 mm Lebel service cartridge. An improved version of the "CS" was also tested in 1913 with promising results. After the war had started in August 1914, the realization sunk in that automatic weapons had become essential for success on the battlefields. General Joffre, the Commander in Chief, pressed to adopt a portable automatic weapon for the infantry. The only thoroughly tested light machine gun which also fired the 8 mm Lebel cartridge was the "CS" machine rifle. It was quickly modified into the Fusil Mitrailleur Mle 1915 CSRG and adopted in July 1915. The "R" in CSRG stands for Ribeyrolles, manager of the Gladiator ("G") cycle factory, in the Paris suburb of Pre-Saint-Gervais. Manufacturing of the CSRG begun there in early 1916 and ended in December 1918. Another facility away from Paris (SIDARME) also manufactured CSRG's beginning in 1917. The Chauchat machine rifle (CSRG) delivered to the French Army fired the 8 mm Lebel cartridge at the slow rate of 250 rpm. At 9 kilograms (19.8 pounds), the gun was much lighter than the contemporary portable light machine guns of the period, such as the Hotchkiss M1909 Benet-Mercie machine gun (12 kg/26 lb) and the Lewis Gun (13 kg/29 pounds). It was a select fire weapon, either automatic or semi-automatic mode. The gun's ergonomics, rather than its recoil, were difficult to cope with but could be tamed by well-trained gunners.
The Chauchat's construction was composite thus not fully consistent in terms of parts quality. The recoiling barrel sleeve as well as all the bolt moving parts were precision milled from solid steel and always fully interchangeable. The barrels were standard Lebel barrels that had been shortened from the muzzle end. The barrel radiators were made of ribbed cast aluminum. On the other hand, the outer breech housing was a simple tube, betraying Gladiator's pre-war activities in motorcycle manufacturing. The rest of the gun was built of stamped metal plates of mediocre quality. Side plate assemblies were held by screws that could become loose after prolonged firing. The sights were often misaligned on the Gladiator-made guns, creating aiming problems that had to be corrected by the gunners. The exact number on record of Chauchat machine gun manufactured between 1916 and the end of 1918 is 262,300. The Gladiator factory manufactured 225,700 CSRGs in 8 mm Lebel plus 18,000 in the US caliber .30-06 between April 1916 and November 1918. SIDARME manufactured 18,600 CSRGs, exclusively in 8 mm Lebel, between October 1917 and November 1918. The SIDARME manufactured Chauchats were generally better finished and better functioning than those made by Gladiator. The French Army had a stock of 63,000 CSRG's just before the Armistice.
The French military at the time considered the Chauchat's performance as inferior in comparison to the reliable heavy Hotchkiss M1914 machine gun. However, whereas the Hotchkiss was a weighty, tripod-mounted weapon, the Chauchat was a light gun that could be mass-produced quickly, cheaply and in very large numbers. It was also never intended to take the role of static defense of the heavy machine gun but to be a portable weapon that would increase the firepower of infantry squads moving forward during the assault. A significant plus is that it could easily be fired while walking, by hanging the Chauchat's sling over a shoulder hook located onto the gunner's upper left side of his Y strap. The other light squad automatic weapons available at the time included the Hotchkiss M1909 Benet-Mercie machine gun, the Madsen machine gun or the Lewis Gun, but none of these, except the Hotchkiss M1909, could be successfully converted to accept 8 mm Lebel ammunition.
Illustration of the Chauchat machine rifle in action
The Mle 1915 Chauchat's performance on the battlefields drew mixed reviews from the users when the war was stagnating in the mud of the trenches in 1916. This brought about a survey, regiment by regiment, requested by General Pétain in late 1916 - the survey's essential conclusion was that the open sided magazines were defective and caused about two thirds of all stoppages. Loose earth, grit and other particles easily entered the gun through these open-sided magazines, an ever present risk in the muddy environment of the trenches. Its long recoil action is often cited as a source of problems for the shooter. However recent firing tests have demonstrated that it is the Chauchat's ergonomics and its loose bipod, rather than its recoil, that makes it a difficult gun to keep on target beyond very short bursts. On some of the Gladiator-made guns, the sights also made the Chauchat shoot systematically too low and to the right. Overheating after long continuous firings (about 400 rounds) dilated the recoiling barrel sleeve to the point where it refused to return forward until the gun had cooled off, thus creating a stoppage that could last 10 minutes. Hence, the manuals recommended firing only in short bursts or semi-auto and insisted that only good magazines should be used.
Several prototypes of dirt-proof, fully enclosed Chauchat magazines were successfully tested in May and June 1918, but came too late. Stronger but still open-sided standard magazines as well as tailored canvas gun covers protecting the gun against mud during transport had previously been issued to all Chauchat gunners in 1917. The initial two-man Chauchat team was also found insufficient and eventually grew to a four-man squad by October 1917 (the squad leader, the gunner, the assistant gunner who handled the magazines plus one additional magazine carrier).
Later on, during the German spring offensive of 1918, the war had moved out of the mud of the trenches and into open fields, thus making the guns more reliable and easier to maintain. Furthermore, French infantry regiments had been reorganized into multiple small (18 men) combat groups ("Demi-Sections de Combat"). Those were made up of a full Chauchat squad plus four VB (Viven-Bessiere) rifle grenade specialists and eight conventional grenadiers/riflemen. At this point in time, in 1918, the preserved French regimental records and statistics of medals given to Chauchat gunners document that they had contributed in no small part to the success of the new infantry tactics. Those were focused on the suppression of enemy machine gun nests by the combined action of portable (Chauchat) automatic fire plus the VB rifle grenades, always used within a range of less than 200 yards.
The Chauchat was not comparable to the submachine guns of World War I, which used pistol rather than rifle ammunition and were thus less powerful. The Italian Villar-Perosa and Beretta Model 1918, the first two submachine guns to appear in World War I, fired the 9 mm Glisenti (a less powerful version of the 9mm Parabellum). The MP18 Bergmann, a German Army submachine gun fielded during the spring of 1918, fired the 9 mm Luger cartridge. Compared to the Chauchat, these early submachine guns were used in relatively small numbers (thousands rather than hundreds of thousands), and had much shorter effective ranges.
Unlike much heavier air-cooled and water-cooled machine guns (such as the Hotchkiss machine gun and the various belt-fed Maxim gun derivatives), and in common with the Lewis Gun, the Chauchat was not designed for sustained defensive fire. The tactical edge expected from the Chauchat was to increase the infantry's offensive firepower during the assault.
After the USA had entered World War I, in April 1917, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in France without automatic weapons or field artillery. It turned to the French ally rather than to the British to purchase ordnance. General Pershing chose the Hotchkiss M1914 medium machine gun and the Chauchat light machine gun (dubbed "automatic rifle" by the AEF and nicknamed the "Sho-Sho" by the troops) to equip the U.S. infantry and if handled properly served the soldiers well. Between August 1917 and the November 11, 1918 Armistice, Gladiator delivered to the AEF 16,000 Chauchat "automatic rifles" in 8 mm Lebel and, late in 1918, 18,000 Chauchats in .30-06.
While the performance of the M1915 Chauchat in 8MM Lebel was considered acceptable at the time, the performance of the M1918 Chauchat in .30-06 was soon recognized as abysmal (and partly the reason for the gun's bad reputation) : the common problem was a failure to extract after the gun had fired only a few rounds and became slightly hot. Based on archival records and recent trials, including a firing test performed at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in July 1973, the adaptation of the Chauchat to use .30-06 ammunition had been compromised by incorrect chamber measurements and sub-standard manufacturing. There has been no explanation as to why US inspectors at the Gladiator factory did not properly test fire these weapons as they were not rechambered M1915's but actually a whole new weapon based on the Chauchat design. The US Army is known for its thoroughness in testing weapons, but in this case either negligence or else the advanced knowledge that the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) would soon replace the Chauchat, anyhow,may have played a role. Only small numbers of the .30-06 Chauchat ever reached the front lines and they were immediately discarded by the troops as useless as they would only fire a few magazines before heating up and ceasing to function. As a result, the Chauchats in 8mm Lebel continued to be used by the AEF. Supplies of the newly manufactured and superior Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) were allocated sparingly and very late, during the Meuse-Argonne offensive which begun in late September 1918. About 75% of the U.S. Divisions were still equipped with the Chauchat - in its original French M1915 version - at the Armistice of November 11, 1918. It is also well documented that General Pershing had been holding back on the BAR until victory was certain, for fear it would be copied by Germany (Ayres, 1919). (Other accounts, however, state that the reason that the BAR didn't see much combat was because the first units equipped with them simply didn't arrive until September.) However, it is also known that the very first BAR's delivered had improperly tempered recoil springs and had these guns been prematurely introduced during the summer of 1918, they might have also been viewed as problematic.
As to the U.S. Marines, they had initially received .30-06 chambered Lewis Guns, but had to exchange them for Chauchats after their arrival in France (This was the result of an old feud between Mr. Lewis and the superior officer in charge of the U.S. Ordnance Department).
As a matter of interest and as documented by World War I veteran Laurence Stallings (in "The Doughboys", 1963) and by U.S. Divisional Histories, Medal of Honor was awarded to three American Chauchat gunners in 1918: 1) Private Nels Wold (35th Division, 138th Infantry). 2) Private Frank Bart (2nd Division, 9th Infantry) and 3) Private Thomas C. Neibaur (42nd Division, 107th Infantry).
Also of interest, one American infantryman said that the only thing the Chauchat was good for was making a still.
Change that you can truly believe in comes from the barrel of a gun!